Scythe is a young adult fantasy novel about two 15-year-olds entering the apprenticeship of scythe in a world without death, where scythes are the only ones who can end people’s life, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
I’m writing this blog post after I have just finished reading 1984 and can’t help noticing some similarities between them. For example, the keeping of a journal without being not sure who’s going to read it. For example, the blurring of time, especially years. There’s an absence of people from the previous era, in 1984, it’s the party members who are from before the Revolution, in Scythe, it’s the first generation of scythe when death was first defeated and scythe first becomes a profession. There’s the synthetic gin in 1984 and the synthetic food in Scythe. There’s also the gradual ceasing of scientific and technological development.
But these are all details. The biggest thing in common is the all-seeing all-knowing governing power. And here’s the most intriguing thing about Scythe. Instead of the usual oppressive and selfish government that results from all the knowledge and power, the ‘government’ in Scythe, called the Thunderhead, is actually good.
The Thunderhead was evolved from ‘the cloud’, our digital network. The Thunderhead controls all knowledge and personal information there is to know in the world and sees everyone and everything there is to see, via CCTV cameras in every street, and phone cameras pointing both front and back. It’s a frightening thought for the citizens on earth in 2020 because at the other end of the camera and the database, there is always the possibility of human beings abusing the information and causing damage and pain.
But here you meet the Thunderhead, the incorruptible artificial intelligence. There are no individuals or committees with various agendas behind it. The Thunderhead is the world government. It knows “[w]hen and where to build roads; how to eliminate waste in food distribution and thus end hunger; how to protect the environment from the ever-growing human population. It created jobs, it clothed the poor, and it established the World Code.” It has ended all wars, eliminated crimes, cured all diseases, reversed ageing and defeated death.
Within the reach of the Thunderhead, there is safe, peaceful and decent everlasting life, to the extent that bored teenagers would jump off skyscrapers for fun and for their parents attention. When that sort of thing happens, a medical team would appear promptly on site, take the ‘patient’ and revive him in the hospital to full strength. And in about three days, you are back in school.
“In stark contrast to people’s fears, the Thunderhead did not seize power. Instead, it was people who came to realise that it was far better suited to run things than politicians… The Thunderhead gave us a perfect world. The utopia that our ancestors could only dream of is our reality.” (p61-62)
There is one sphere that’s not under the authority of the Thunderhead: Scythedom. A group of people with the absolute power to kill, but without the restraint of law. Of course all the evil and corruption of the old world ‘survived’ the rule of the Thunderhead inside Scythedom, alive and kicking. A lot of the story is about how the scythe apprentices Rowan and Citra set out to challenge the wrong. I’m really looking forward to seeing what role the thunderhead is going to play in this.
Everlasting Life… On Earth
The author takes care to explore the idea of life and death. And it’s one of the elements that makes the deepest impression on me. Life without death sounds great. No more loved ones leaving us. There’s no limit to our years on earth. We can spend ten years learning piano and the next ten learning Spanish. There’s no hurry. When you get to your seventies or eighties and fancy being young again, you can just ask the Thunderhead to make it happen, at any age of your choosing.
In addition to an everlasting life, there is no more crucial scientific research to conduct in order to improve life. There is no space project because we have already knows all about the stars. There is no cancer research because cancer is once for all, cured. There is no real purpose for going to school. There’s no new artwork that can compare with the old masters because without pain and hardship, people lost the ability to create, as well as appreciate, joy and hope. Without urgency and purpose, life has become “eternal maintenance”. Life without death sounds a bit less attractive.
Scythes use different philosophies to choose their ‘targets’. Scythe Faraday relies solely on statistics: one in how many people died in the Age of Mortality trying to rescue their dog from a flood believing they’re a strong swimmer; one in how many teenagers died because of speeding and drunk driving. Scythe Curie, who seems to understand and reflect most on the subject of ‘life without death’, chooses to ‘glean’ those who had enough, those who are ready to “conclude”.
How could life without death be undesirable? You might ask. Surely to live is better than to die, especially in a world of peace and plenty like in Scythe? Citra confessed when she was a child she pushed a classmate in front of a speeding truck. The girl was killed instantly but was revived as good as new three days later. Then Citra said something important, “but it didn’t change what I’d done”. She lived under the shadow of that murder all her life. The Thunderhead can provide all the material needs. People are living better lives but people are not becoming better people. People might even not be a terror to their neighbour anymore, but they can be to themselves. How many years would it take for you to think, ‘I’ve had enough of myself’?
Overall it’s a fun book to read, think and discuss. One thing I’m slightly worried is how absorbed a young reader can become and momentarily blurs the boundary between fiction and reality and comes into danger because he or she forgets there’s no revival centre and death is final. But apart from that, I like how the author sets up all of these profound and philosophical topics, blends in with an action-packed storyline, for young readers to reflect on.
Thanks very much Mr Shusterman and I look forward to book two!